The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Teachers Alone are Pathfinders of Reform" by The Detroit News, 4/24/97.

Original Title:
The Necessary Path to Educational Reform
by Barry McGhan

A few years ago an ad counseled car owners to "pay me now or pay me later," because certain repairs are just inevitable. Public school teachers need to deliver a similar message about school reform: "listen to us now or listen to us later."

When all is said and done, it is the classroom teacher who is the real on-the-ground authority on what kinds of education reforms will actually work. Presidents, governors, mayors, state school boards, superintendents, principals, consultants, education professors, union officials, and other experts can promote all the top-down, outside-in reform they can think of, but it won't amount to a hill of beans unless classroom teachers implement it in their classrooms on a daily basis.

While this idea may be crystal clear to you, it seems obscure to most of the experts. Top-down education reform has raged through the country for nearly 15 years, but real change has been slow. Why? Some experts would have you believe that it is due to the intransigence of teachers. All teachers want, they say, is to pick up their paycheck and keep doing what they've been doing.

For a few teachers, maybe, but in most cases that's not it at all. The problem is that top-down reform is too weak to be effective!

Teachers work under conditions that are unlikely to be changed from the outside. The way their work is organized is ancient--one adult and 30 individual kids working together in a room with the door closed. The daily interactions that influence and shape a child's learning are complex and difficult to analyze. It is naive to think that two or three state tests scattered across a child's school years are indicative of much. Since the process and results of teachers' work cannot be easily observed and assessed, their work can't be effectively managed from the outside.

No matter how much some experts may wish it, teaching is not like making widgets. There, you're out on an assembly line in plain sight of co-workers and supervisors, and the parts you're using have all been precisely manufactured to fit perfectly, so you can pass the widget down the line to the next assembly point. Quality control is on-going. Mistakes can be quickly corrected.

Teachers have generally learned to do what they do alone during their first few years on the job. Once they've found things that work they're not likely to throw them away for the latest idea dreamed up by some expert. Also, their main responsibility is to care for and instruct children almost every minute they are at work. This doesn't permit much time for experimentation--even for the few good ideas that come along. The President's new standards, for example, may represent a great new curriculum, but teachers can't implement it if there's no time to become familiar with it.

If you want top-down methods to work you will need to change the conditions under which teaching takes place. It has to be more observable and easier to assess on a regular basis. What will such schools look like? How much will it cost to bring about these organizational changes? How long will it take to reform education after it is made more susceptible to top-down control?

Charter schools--reputedly the least top-down approach to reform--may eventually produce some improvements. However, it will take a while for them to develop a track record that can be fairly judged. In the meantime, taxpayers should be prepared to write off the costs of those that fail.

I believe that charter schools will eventually do better than regular public schools with similar students. But, that won't be because charter teachers are more dedicated and knowledgeable than others. Research shows that the teaching knowledge base--the methodologies, texts, and materials used--are quite similar among schools across the country. There's just not that much out there that's new and different. The main advantage of a charter is that it's non-compulsory--no matter how difficult it's student population, it has the power to enforce cooperation by telling students and parents "it's our way or the highway." In the end, if any compulsory charter schools are ever launched, we may only find out that the successful ones are those that paid attention to what teachers thought would work.

The path to improving education has to pass through each and every classroom--not via edicts from the outside, but by joining hands with teachers, listening to their concerns, encouraging them to craft responsible new practices from theory, and facilitating the transition. Anything less is a waste of time and money. Except to the experts.


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